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Unacceptable Democracy

September 11, 2015

3-minute read

No matter how overused and abused the word "democracy" may be, its very concrete application never ceases to be disturbing. The phenomena is certainly not new —Jacques Rancière wrote beautifully about it ten years ago—but these last months have been littered with all sorts of expressions of this hate, among our elites, for democracy when it spills over the confines of representative government.

Already, more than a year ago, The Economist served up a six-page essay on what was going awry with democracy. This piece —the standard-bearer of the economist and liberal view of democracy— warrants a more complete analysis and counter-argument than what I will be offering here. Let's concentrate on the heart of the argument: that the only democracy that exists if of course the election of parliamentarians and the institution of a representative government. According to this view, the people's actions in the streets are either a democratic dysfunction, either a struggle against a tyrant (e.g. the Orange Revolution, the Arab Spring or the recent riots in Hong Kong). The Economist claims that the cause of this boiling over is mainly economic: tyrants are being toppled because they no longer offer a strong economy.

The classical liberalism prejudice is present from the get-go: what people want is mainly individual wealth, all else is secondary. Therefore, there is no real desire for autonomous collective decision-making. Individuals are driven by two impulses: protecting their individual rights and accumulating wealth.

How can democracy be improved within this logic? The answer is in keeping with the premise:

"The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state".

The discourse is therefore simple: "democracy", however limited and liberal, is only acceptable when it yields satisfying economic results. When Chinese authoritarianism is much more successful (as it was until a few weeks ago), when Russian imperialism is geopolitically more effective, it ought to raise questions on how the political system is working. When, even after deposing a tyrant, Egyptians do not vote for liberals, but for the Muslin Brotherhood, it's because something's wrong. For our elites —The Economist, with the Financial Times, being their main general-audience forum for debate—, democracy is a system that makes it possible to balance out passions in order to reach economic growth. All other expressions of the people's will are understood as either menacing unrest or dangerous populism.

In fact, the recent events in Greece have shown very clearly the bizarre meaning which the term "populism" has taken on among European elites. When used pejoratively, the term is traditionally associated with demagogy. Guilty of low-grade populism is the orator who, by fallacious arguments inflames the people to bring it to serve interests other than its own. Such an attitude is no longer needed to be contemptuously called a populist, one now only needs to call to the people. A simple democrat becomes a populist the moment he or she goes a step further than electing a representative government.

The moment he was elected, The Economist presented Alexis Tsipras as a dangerous populist. Le Monde published an op-ed carrying a similar tone on February 2nd. The following extract is certainly delightful:

"Reasoning in any other way means giving way to populism, to wishful thinking, to quick fixes that betray the very everyday life of the people. When politics seizes upon voodoo practices, dreams usually turn into nightmares. That's why there is no alternative."

Françoise Fressoz, columnist at that same newspaper, will follow in the same footsteps shortly after the referendum was announced in an editorial stylishly entitled "Tsipras, the European Coterie's Little Rascal" ["Tsipras, l'affreux jojo du cénacle européen"]. Jean-Marie Colombani goes down the well-trodden path by presenting Tsipras as an impostor and condemns him for calling a referendum. The president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, also said that in order for reasonable negotiations to take place, Greece needed a government of technocrats (as experienced in Italy after Berlusconi's departure: not a peep from proponents of classical liberalism).

The moment it doesn't mesh with the elites' wishes, democracy becomes illegitimate in its very principle. As if they were waking up suddenly and realizing that despite all the institutional barriers, a representative government can, sometimes, appeal to the people… Sometimes, also, the people organize outside of the well-delineated bounds. Then, unmistakably, the democratic residue subsisting in the representative government and on its margins are considered unacceptable by the elites. It was the case with both Chavez and Morales, with both the French people's resounding NO to the European constitution and the 2012 spring in Quebec. The notoriously infamous text published in 1975 by Samuel Huntington, Michel Crozier, and Joji Watanuki still pretty well sums up the elites' position on democracy: the moment it exists outside of their control —when it truly exists in short—it's going too far.

People are stupid and when they are called upon to voice their opinion they are unmistakably led by manipulative orators. Better leave management to shrewder hands, that know how to tell true from false and don't allow themselves to be swept away by emotion. That's what the elites keep on telling us, again and again, ad nauseam. Recommended reading as antidote is the wonderful collection of essays on authoritarian democracy in last January's issue of À Bâbord, prepared by my colleague Philippe Hurteau along with Ricardo Peñafiel and Philippe de Grosbois.

Simon Tremblay-Pepin is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

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